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Books to Watch | February 11, 2020

February 11, 2020

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Each and every week, our marketing team—Marketing Director Blyth Meier (BRM), Digital Marketing Specialist Gabbi Cisneros (GMC), and Editorial Director Dylan Schleicher (DJJS)—highlights the five books being released that we are most excited about.

This week, our choices are:

February 11 New Releases

1774: The Long Year of Revolution by Mary Beth Norton, Knopf

A common misconception of the Boston Tea Party—there are many, as Mary Beth Norton’s excellent new history of 1774 documents—is that colonists were protesting a tax that would have made their much-beloved tea more expensive. But the Tea Tax would have actually made tea cheaper. Because of the many hands it passed through, tea from England (sourced by the East India Company in China and sold at auction in London before making its way to America; globalization is nothing new) was expensive, making smuggled tea big business in colonial America. 

The Tea Tax was, in a way, the era’s incarnation of corporate welfare, instituted in part to “rescue the East India Company from a fiscal crisis” by allowing the company to sell directly to the American market. That allowed the East India Company (EIC) to undercut the illicit American trade in smuggled tea—and those that had previously sold its tea legally through contracts with London wholesalers—while providing direct revenue for the Crown by adding a small tax on the transaction. But not only did colonists cry foul at such direct “taxation without representation,” New York merchant Alexander McDougall “charged that the East India Company was a corrupt monopoly and a brutal ruler of India.” American colonies were, like India, a part of the British Empire, so the resistance to the EIC having such direct influence over American trade is understandable. But so are many of the arguments of British Loyalists at the time, which actually contributed in meaningful ways to our eventual independence and the ideas (like freedom of the press) that formed the bedrock of the new nation. And the Boston Tea Party is just the beginning of the story and debate that Norton documents so well.

Opening the aperture to include the full debate and the entire country (EIC tea was sent not just to Boston, but to four port cities, whose populations all reacted in different ways) Norton shows how “The population was divided politically then, as now.” And she goes beyond the usual founding fathers narrative:

I aim … to include the views of all of those who participated in formal political discourse in the colonies in 1774, regardless of their gender, race, or place of residence.  

Because Norton has had such great interest in and previous study of the women of the Revolutionary Era (on whom she has three books to her name), and the Loyalists (her first book, The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England) 1774 is a more well-rounded and nuanced look at the American Revolution than I have previously encountered—or even imagined. (DJJS)

 

Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote by Craig Fehrman, Avid Reader Press

Craig Fehrman’s history of presidents’ authorship reveals not only the presidents themselves, their inner worlds and often world-shaping ideas, it not only traces the history of the campaign biography that has become a mainstay of today’s politics, but gives us a broad sweep of American history through them. To borrow from Thomas Jefferson’s description of the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers in his Notes on the State of Virginia, it’s as if, through Fehrman, “You stand on a very high point of land” from which you can glimpse “a small catch of smooth blue horizon” of American history. But it is not just the horizon. He puts you also in the streets and fields of America, and in the minds of readers, both the presidents he profiles and regular Americans who read their biographies. 

Reading, Craig Fehrman eloquently states, is the “internal side” of democracy. 

Before participation, before organization, before the ballot, comes an opportunity to learn about leaders and ideas. That’s the theory, at least, a theory stated again and again in the diaries and letters and book margins of America’s readers: a commitment to self-improvement and self-education, each as a step toward self-government; a didactic taste for facts; a nation of nonfiction.

Fehrman explains how American reading and writing, and Americans’ access to books, have all evolved over time, and how—as we learned in What We Talk about When We Talk about Books—bookselling has been on “the frontlines of capitalism.” Yes, Author in Chief takes us behind the scenes and inside the pages of presidents’ writings, often inside their head, heart, and soul, but it is also a lovely history of American literary culture and bookishness, and the head, heart, and soul of our nation. (DJJS)

 

Blaze Your Own Trail: An Interactive Guide to Navigating Life with Confidence, Solidarity and Compassion by Rebekah Bastian, Berrett-Koehler

Rebekah Bastian is a writer, artist, speaker, mentor, wife, mother, aerial acrobat, and vice president of community and culture at Zillow. She does a lot, and though this may be intimidating, in Blaze Your Own Trail she assembles all her experiences and wisdom in a book that teaches us there is no wrong way to succeed, nor a singular definition of success.

"Young women face an uncertain, unfair, and legitimately scary world. But young women are also amazingly resourceful, adaptable, and resilient" reads the forward by Sarah Lacy. This choose-your-own-adventure style book illustrates this resilience and adaptability of women faced with the same unpredictability that scares some of us away from pursuing what we want. The character she has you embody on this adventure is "a college-educated, able-bodied, heterosexual white woman[,] so in many regards you are already starting from first (if not second or third) base," but the struggles she confronts are often more universal ones like debt, peer pressure, forgiveness, and unhealthy or changing relationships. Reaching the end of the first few chapters made me (painfully) aware of how difficult it is for me to make choices, but being able to go back and test out multiple options helped me practice resisting the reflex to engage in those overwhelming internal debates. Instead, I began to just enjoy the process of my fictional self's life and see that, in the end, it would all work out quite alright if not great! (GMC)

 

A Map Is Only One Story: Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home, edited by Nicole Chung & Mensah Demary, Catapult 

We all know what it is like to be new somewhere, to be seen as an outsider, and to feel the strong pull back to the familiar—whether you are the new hire in an office, have started your freshman year at an out-of-state school, or moved to a new state to be closer to your grandchildren. For people who leave their country, however, the change is endlessly more complicated, as they find themselves living in a culture with different unspoken norms, possibly learning a new language, and separated from the tight social networks they left behind. And while every week we hear about new changes in our government’s immigration policy, we don’t hear enough from the people who have made this life-changing journey. Edited by Catapult editor in chief Nicole Chung (author, All You Can Ever Know) and founding editor Mensah Demary (author, Let Love Have the Last Word), this first anthology of writing from the wonderful online magazine Catapult gatherers “stories of migration and what it means to exist between languages and cultures.” The editors have collected a rich range of authors sharing their stories from Somalia and Portland, Nigeria and Utah, Iran and Los Angeles, India and Pakistan, Ghana and Italy. And while you can find all of those places on a map—identify their borders and cities, trace the rivers that run through them and the mountain ranges that divide them—you cannot find there what it means to move as a human between them. As Jamila Osman says in her essay here: “A map is only one story. It is not the most important story. The most important story is the one a people tell about themselves.” (BRM)

Writing Memoir (Lit Starts) : A Book of Writing Prompts by The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, forward by Julie Lythcott-Haims , Abrams Noterie

"Memoirists take on the risks associated with telling truths in public, and thus are the bug lighters of the literary world," begins the book's inspiring forward written by Julie Lythcott-Haims. "The truth is worth telling. And sometimes the truth hurts." My greatest fears about writing memoir were alleviated within the first paragraph, and I'm motivated to start working on those prompts! But I slowed down and read Lythcott-Haims's brief explanation and examples of memoir, which are extremely helpful to anyone who has questions about the genre's many iterations, has doubts that they're even writing memoir right, or needs tips for memoir writing (I read and re-read it for all of these reasons). The book's small size is one of my favorite things about it, because I can take these prompts anywhere and write while on-the-go, but sometimes the pages' size also prevents me from writing as much (or as large) as I might want. However, moving briskly from prompt to prompt—stopping when I run out of space or think of something else or just want to access a different perspective—helps me get my basic ideas down, so that I can write (type) more later. My favorite prompt formats were those that began with one instruction (ie. "think of an object from your childhood”) and then inquired further ("How big was it, what color was it, how did it smell or feel in your hands?") and then further ("If there is a person associated with it, describe the person.") and further again a few more times. These prompts allowed me to see a memory or moment in multiple ways, also motivating me to test out all the ways that I can memoir-ize them! This book is a great starting point for a beginner memoirist but also a good resource for a more advanced writer seeking a fun challenge or change in their techniques. Lythcott-Haims writes that "a good memoir is an act of service," and this little guide will help you help your readers. (GMC)

 

What we're reading away from work:

I just finished reading Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, which tells the story of a 26-year-old part-time babysitter whose boss is a working-mom/social media influencer. Many of the characters display different forms of prejudice or ignorance, incorrectly assuming things about each other that are eventually proved untrue. The trajectory of their learning is good to see (and sometimes cringey), though it’s never quite complete. The book is well-written and I flew through it! Sometimes it’s a little too much like watching a scripted reality show on MTV, but overall it presents important topics and is a great debut from a new author!" —Gabbi Cisneros, Digital Marketing Specialist

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